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Amusement Art

ae1At Mary Anne Kluth’s new MAH exhibit, theme parks and natural landscapes become one

Most people visit amusement parks to go on rides and munch on cotton candy—but not Mary Anne Kluth. The Oakland-based artist regularly visits theme parks in order to take digital snapshots of the simulated landscapes.

Her fascination with theme parks grew after she took a part-time job at Fairyland, a children’s amusement park in Oakland, in 2006. Soon after being hired, the park’s management recognized her artistic talent and asked her to join a small team dedicated to restoring the park.

Without a specific artistic endpoint in mind, other than documenting her findings, Kluth began taking snapshots at every theme park she visited. By 2011, she had amassed close to 1,000 snapshots, which she then used to create palettes in Photoshop. With her newly accumulated arsenal of images, she started constructing both digital and hand-cut collages that put a contemporary spin on natural landscapes.

Several of Kluth’s collages are currently on display at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History as part of its newest exhibition, “Journey Forth,” which also features the work of seven other world-renowned artists who juxtapose nature and modern technology. The exhibit runs through Dec. 1.

Kluth’s artistic process is both complex and fruitful, but it begins with the simple act of asking questions. “I’m interested in hyperbole in American culture,” she says. “What does anyone want from the ‘happiest place on earth’? Is the landscape there the prettiest? Why are fake places interesting?”

Throughout her travels to various theme parks, Kluth has found that they tend to offer experiences abstracting and displacing actual geographical travel, and they seek to elide many political, economic, and ideological tensions. In her artist’s statement, she explains, “The recreated wilderness—jungles, mountains, swamps and Western wastelands—compresses the visuals of a world a single day, while sparing its audiences the inconvenience and vulnerability of confronting the sublime.”

ae1-2Her resulting artwork explores the ways in which theme parks create artificial environments for people to exist in, and also simulate slices of Americana.

“What theme parks are trying to do is create the expected experience,” says Kluth. “It’s sort of instant nostalgia, because it’s (always) the same. When you go to the Matterhorn it’s always the same.” She also points out that visiting a man-made, recreated landscape, like an amusement park, is very different from visiting a place like the Sierra Nevada, where the experience is more dynamic and authentic.

When it’s time to sit down and create one of her collages, Kluth draws inspiration from the letters of botanist William Brewer, who joined the legendary Whitney geological expeditions of the old west.

 “I'd take passages from (Brewer’s) journal, and then try to find compositions from art history that related to what he was talking about,” she says. “I’d kind of split the difference between what the old paintings looked like and (Brewer’s) descriptions … I would (also) look for paintings from F.E. Church, Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt  …  (then) I'd go into Photoshop and put images together, using the palettes from the theme park shots.”

While the direction that each art piece is going to take is not always clear at the start, Kluth lets her natural instincts be her guide. The mystery is half the fun.

“I feel like I have ideas that I'm working through when I start a piece, (but) I don't even know where they're going to go,” says Kluth. “It's kind of like the ideas dictate what the formal quality is going to be.”

Though she’s worked in numerous mediums, she found that collage was the best way to represent the juxtaposition of nature and manmade landscapes. “It felt really appropriate,” she says. “It's part of my natural processes, (and) I feel like landscapes are related to collages because there’s so much material difference happening when you’re in a natural landscape, which is very separate from a landscape painting.”

Her artwork can be interpreted as a critique of contemporary values through the lens of a theme park, but she admits that her employment at Fairyland makes her at least partially culpable.

“The flip side of the coin is my job at Fairyland. Part of it is me constantly fixing the things that the kids break,” says Kluth, with a laugh. “(So) I'm fully part of that illusion—at least on a tiny scale.” 


Journey Forth is on display now through Dec. 1 at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, 705 Front St., Santa Cruz. On Saturday, Nov. 3, artists Mary Anne Kluth and Val Britton will host an artist talk at the museum. The artist talk is free with entrance to the museum; $5/general, $3/students, seniors and kids, No cover/MAH members and under 4. For more information, visit santacruzmah.org.

Photos: Mary Anne Kluth

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